To Be Someone: An excerpt from Boy About Town
An un-edited excerpt from “Number 30: To Be Someone,” the 21st chapter in Boy About Town: A Memoir. Boy About Town is published on July 4 by William Heinemann in the UK. Place online orders here. The American Kindle edition of Boy About Town is published through Cornerstone Digital on July 4, with hard copies available as of August 15. Boy About Town is also published July 4 in Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere.
I was wearing my brand-new black school jacket when I went to RAK Studios in St John’s Wood to interview Paul Weller. Now that we were heading into our fourth year at Tenison’s, starting on our O levels, we could finally leave behind the blue blazers that had denoted us as ‘posh’ grammar-school boys. (We had, actually, been a comprehensive school for a year already, the Labour government having decided to abolish the grammar-school system in pursuit of social equality. The option for rich people to send their children to so-called ‘public’ schools remained.) I had yet to sew the Tenison’s school crest onto the front of the blazer and had no immediate plans to do so. That way, I was hoping I could pass as a ‘new wave mod’, like an everyday member of The Jam. Wearing it to the studio for the interview was something of a test.
‘All right, you come straight from school, then?’
Paul Weller’s opening words put me right in my place. There was fashion. And there was school uniform. And Weller, decked out in perfectly creased Sta-Prest trousers and a light-coloured, long-sleeved shirt unbuttoned at the top – clothing so similar to my own and yet so many miles apart – was clearly on the first side of that divide.
I’d never been inside a recording studio before, but RAK looked almost exactly as I’d expected. The place was modern, it was bright – daylight pouring in on the control room from the quiet street outside – and the atmosphere was casual, quietly humming along with what was, to those involved, the everyday business of making a record. The mood was clearly confident, too. ‘David Watts’ – the A-side much preferred by the radio stations – had just entered the charts and there was a feeling it was going to keep rising this time. Everyone around The Jam was taking bets on its position for the next week’s chart, at £5 a go, the kind of money I couldn’t imagine having in my pocket without immediately spending it on an LP, a concert ticket or, preferably, both.
The betting team revolved around three people, all of them considerably older than the group. There was John Weller, imposing with his boxer’s nose, his silver hair and his rough voice; an even more daunting man called Kenny Wheeler, whose position in the camp I didn’t quite understand but was not about to question; and an affable, bearded chap called Dave Liddle, who I recognised from Jam gigs as Paul’s guitar roadie, though when I used that term he quickly corrected me. He was a guitar tech, he said.
And then there was Paul: handsome, tall, immaculately dressed, rake thin, and yet visibly tough. He was the reason that anybody was in the studio to begin with, and yet he seemed to shirk that responsibility, as if deliberately trying to vacate the centre of activity and leave a void there. He near enough chain-smoked, though he wasn’t the only one, and he drank tea at a furious pace, though he wasn’t alone in that activity either. And he was a constant bundle of nerves. When we conducted our interview, in the studio itself, sat on a couple of folding chairs pulled in and facing each other, my family’s portable tape-radio propped up on a Vox AC30 amplifier, I noticed that his Sta-Prest trouser leg twitched constantly. In song he sounded so self-assured, so absolutely certain: I don’t give two fucks about your review. But now that he was talking to a fourteen-year-old fanzine editor, he didn’t seem quite so sure of himself. In fact, he was oddly inarticulate.
Was it me? I had no interview experience to base this on. I was sitting opposite someone who had become near enough a god to me over the last twelve months, and we were one on one, just inches apart, with nobody in the room to overhear and pass judgement on us, but also no one to assure me I was asking the right questions. I wanted to know everything, but I didn’t want to pry. I wanted to be friendly, but I also wanted to make sure I got something out of him that was worth printing. I wanted to start at the beginning, but I didn’t want to run out of time at the end. So I just kept asking questions. Paul’s response to them, typically, was to study his fingers, and the cigarette ash burning slowly between them, and then to respond in choppy sentences that started, paused, rewound, started again, paused again, and often abruptly stopped . . . only to start back up again just as I set about asking a new question.
And yet, although his responses weren’t exactly the height of literacy, there was nothing he didn’t answer, nothing he avoided – although he did have an interesting habit of throwing my questions right back at me. When I asked, for example, if he’d gone to see the ‘Who’s Who’ exhibition, he said that he had, and then he asked if I’d gone, and what had I thought of it? And when I told him that Townshend and Moon were there he wanted to know, ‘Did they talk to you?’ Not, ‘Did you talk to them?’ But ‘Did they talk to you?’ (Actually, he used the word ‘yer’, as in ‘Did they talk to yer?’ He wasn’t one for the Queen’s English.) When I quizzed him on his reputation for ‘arrogance’, he quickly projected it right back on me. ‘It’s like someone saying to you, “What do you think of your fanzine?” . . . If you say, “I think it’s fucking great,” it doesn’t mean you’re arrogant, it means you’ve got confidence and you believe in it and you believe in what you do.’
And then, when we talked about a recent Sounds cover story that had painted The Jam as being in the throes of crisis, Weller wasted no time explaining why he had refused to sit down for an interview with the writer. ‘He was a cunt,’ said Paul, using a word we rarely uttered even on the terraces. ‘I only talk to people I think it’s worth talking to. Like, you’ve come here for a purpose. But all he’d come for was to give us a slating, so that’s not very positive. At least you’re doing something.’
I was? I hadn’t really thought of it that way. I just figured I was indulging in a hobby while my band got going, trying to have some fun outside of school hours (and, especially, during them). To the extent that Paul Weller or Keith Moon were giving me the time of day, I figured it was only out of kindness, sympathy, perhaps a memory of how they had been similarly eager at my age. The magazines I had sent Paul were nothing: just a bunch of third-formers’ poorly edited music reviews, a couple of fawning biographies, and some hastily written gossip items, all run through a school copier. And yet here was Paul Weller sitting in front of me, giving up part of his valuable studio time, telling me I had every right to believe in it, to say ‘It’s fucking great’ and mean it. He was validating it for me.
Halfway through the interview, Dave Liddle walked in, asking what we wanted for lunch. I looked at Paul. What did rock stars have for lunch?
‘Fried egg,’ said Paul to Dave. ‘Lots of ketchup.’?Liddle looked at me. ‘Fried-egg sandwich all right?’?I nodded. I’d never had a fried-egg sandwich before but I wasn’t about to admit as much. It was bad enough that I’d given away my ‘mod’ credibility with my school blazer.
A few minutes later Liddle came back into the studio with two plates. Each contained a fried egg, laden with ketchup, wedged between two slices of white bread, with a cup of heavily milked tea to accompany. I tucked into mine. It tasted wonderful. Better than that, it looked wonderful. The studio was state of the art, and there was pristine equipment everywhere, and Weller looked sharp as a shop-window dummy, but still, The Jam ate like Jimmy out of Quadrophenia, like that picture in the album book that showed a café table full of chips and eggs, and fag ends and tea cups. I loved it.
Paul had promised me an exclusive and he was good to his word. Early on in the day, he disappeared into the studio with a Rickenbacker, which I now knew to be the most beautiful guitar in the world (even as I still suspected that the Gibson Les Paul made a better sound) and recorded overdubs for the final part of a song called ‘In the Crowd’. (‘Hey! That’s my song title!’ I wanted to say but of course didn’t.) He allowed me to come into the recording room and take pictures of him; he had a faraway look in his eyes by the time I did so, fully focused on the psychedelic little guitar lines he was creating. It was like I wasn’t there.
And then, later in the afternoon, I was allowed to hear the rest of the album. They’d decided to call it All Mod Cons, a pun on the mod movement per the shorthand of real estate advertising (for ‘all modern conveniences’, my mum told me), and it was immediately obvious that the critics who had it in for The Jam were going to be rudely disappointed. All Mod Cons was not so punk as its predecessors; it was deeper, more polished, better produced, more expressive. (Paul used the word ‘subtle’ during our interview.) By any musical or lyrical standards you could apply, it was obviously their ‘best’ album – and yet it still had plenty of anger. And swearing. There was a song called ‘To Be Someone’, about rock stars who ‘shit out to become one of the bastard sons’, and another in which Weller promised a character called ‘Mr Clean’ that ‘If I get the chance I’ll fuck up your life.’
But there was also this song called ‘English Rose’ and it threw me for a loop. The other members of The Jam weren’t present on this recording (just as they weren’t at the studio that day); it was only Paul and an acoustic guitar. It was a ballad, unlike anything The Jam had done before. The closest I could compare it to was ‘Tonight At Noon’, but without the band accompaniment. I was happy that Paul was in love (every Jam fan knew her name was Gill), and that he could write songs about it; I hoped to get there myself one day. But I loved The Jam because they were a band; I wasn’t looking for Weller to be a solo artist. And I liked them loud: even ‘Tonight At Noon’ had power chords on top of the acoustic strumming. So when Paul asked me what I thought of it, like he wasn’t quite sure of it himself, I said something about it being ‘different’ and left it there.
Fortunately, ‘English Rose’ was the odd one out. Everything else was The Jam as I knew them and loved them while taking that vital step forward. I was especially moved by the tracks at the end of each side. ‘In the Crowd’ was well over five minutes long, suggesting that the group had finally broken free of their reputation as either a ‘punk’ or a ‘mod’ or even a ‘punk-mod’ band. (Even better, in the lengthy fade-out, Paul threw a vocal reference back to ‘Away from the Numbers’. He knew, as well as anyone, that there had been something special about that one.) As for the finale, ‘Down in the Tube Station at Midnight’, everything about it – the rhythm, the lyrics, the rush of words at the end which told of an encounter every bit as violent as ‘“A” Bomb in Wardour Street’ – suggested that it was the best thing they’d ever done. During our interview, Paul said they’d probably break with tradition, with the unwritten punk rule-book, and take more than one single off this new album.
‘It’s too good not to,’ he insisted.?And that wasn’t arrogance. It was the truth.
Read the interview with Paul Weller as published in Jamming number 5
Read the full transcript from this interview with Paul Weller
Read more about Boy About Town at iJamming!